Don’t Talk Big, Mahathir, You Brought Down Our English

By Kee Thuan Chye

Not that I want to knock Mahathir Mohamad, you know, I’ve knocked him so many times before, but I cannot tahan laa when he tries to act innocent and say things should be like this or that now when he never did anything when he was prime minister to do the right things himself. In fact, for some things, he did the opposite.

Take what he now says about our graduates not being able to get jobs because they fail at interviews – because their English is poor. Now, let me ask him, when he was PM, did he do anything to make Malaysian students learn the language seriously other than learning Maths and Science in English? No, he didn’t!

He didn’t have the guts to go one step further and give more emphasis to learning English in schools. He floated the idea of bringing back English-medium schools but that petered out. He was only testing the idea. When it didn’t work, he pulled back, like a tortoise head into its shell.

He didn’t even make passing English at the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) exam compulsory. In fact, English ceased to be a must-pass subject in 1974, when he was education minister. He said Malay students might fail the whole SPM if English was a must-pass. Instead of spurring them on to master the language so that they would pass it and SPM as well, he gave them the easy way out. After that, succeeding generations of students couldn’t be bothered with English. He was responsible for that mistake. The National Union of Teachers protested, but did he care?

Well, Mahathir was education minister from 1974 to 1977, and during that time, Malay neo-nationalism was on the rise. Even Malay creative writers like Muhammad Haji Salleh and Syed Alwi who were originally writing in English were feeling uneasy about writing in the colonial language and decided to switch to writing in Malay. So Mahathir was going with the flow. He promoted Malay to please the nationalistic herd, and he had no qualms about letting our standard of English slide.

But now he says Malay language nationalists are wrong in thinking that nationalism is about being able to speak the national language well. Now he says, “Nationalism is about becoming successful in all fields of life, being able to contribute towards the growth and the development of your country and your race. Being able to stand tall ... that is true nationalism.” And therefore the use of Malay, which is “not yet the language of maths and science”, should not be equated to nationalism.

Why didn’t he stand up and tell them that in the 1970s? In those days, Malay was even less of a language of maths and science. He was education minister, for crying out loud. He was a leader, he was supposed to lead with the right ideas. Of course lah, he didn’t because he was scared he would lose his position. In those days, if he had tried to champion English, he might have got lynched! And Mahathir must have loved his neck too much.

We know, however, what he was not scared of doing. In fact, it was one of the first things he did when he became education minister – the sort of thing he does best. Yes, exert control. Mahathir the control freak bulldozed university campuses and forced academia to be subjected to Government control. He kicked aside academics who opposed the move and placed his own men in vice-chancellor positions. I know that he replaced the excellent VC of Universiti Sains Malaysia, Hamzah Sendut, with a civil servant. What did civil servants know about administering universities except how to behave like feudal lords?

Mahathir took away academic freedom and politics in universities. He emasculated academics and threatened to withdraw the scholarships of students who were politically active. He introduced the culture of fear in campuses.

I also know for a fact that during his time as education minister, Malay gradually became the medium of instruction in our universities. When I entered university in 1973, students already had to answer exam questions and write essays up to 30 per cent in Malay, but as time went on, the percentage increased, until everything became totally Malay. Although Mahathir believed that English was important, he did nothing to reverse that. But imagine this, I did subjects like Shakespeare – and of course studying his plays in the original English – and still had to write essays and answer exam questions on Shakespeare at least 30 per cent in Malay! Sounds crazy, no?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for promoting Malay as the national language, but there are also limits and realities, don’t you think? And certainly not at the expense of losing our edge in English in the Asian region.

When Mahathir became PM, he could still have redeemed himself as far as English was concerned by bringing it back in a big way – to help Malaysian students. After all, he was head honcho now, and everyone was shit scared of him. Remember those bad old days when he was in charge? But he didn’t.

Late in his premiership – in fact, when he was just about to step down – in 2003, he introduced the teaching of maths and science in English, but what’s the point of having just those subjects taught in English? It’s only a half-measure. It doesn’t help students to gain proficiency in the language. They must use the language a lot of the time to be good at it. I should know. I went to English-medium schools, primary and secondary. We used the language all the time. That’s how to become good at it.

He should have brought back the English-medium schools, instead of just talk about it. But of course he was scared. We all knew that if he did that, his Umno ultras would have dunked him in English tea. And maybe even chewed him up. Hmmm … like biskut jari.

So, please, Mahathir, don’t act like you were so great and talk big now. For not laying the foundation when you were education minister and then PM, you are responsible for our graduates’ failure today to get jobs because they can’t speak proper English. You didn’t do your job. You didn’t lead. In fact, you brought down our standard of English. Yes, you! You were more concerned about keeping your position, exerting control over people, making people scared.

You did that by creating a Frankenstein – Islamisation. Because you were worried about PAS. You wanted Umno to appear more holy than any other body. You politicised not only the issue of race – with your Ketuanan Melayu concept – but also religion. You used religion to get Muslim support. In 2002, you told Parliament that Malaysia was an “Islamic state”. That was a shocker. I guess it must have even shocked the jubah off every PAS member!

And now you have the cheek to tell Malaysian Muslims to acquire technical and scientific knowledge rather than focus on religious knowledge. What laa? After all that Islamisation, now this? Are you schizophrenic or what? Or are you still trying to screw up the minds of the people you once ruled over?

OK la, you’ve caused enough damage already laa, old man. Just lay off and go into a quiet corner and roll over. Don’t open your big trap again. You’re grounded.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.